“CHiPs” Life on the Set

Officers Bobby “Hot Dog” Nelson and Frank Poncherello, on patrol in Culver City.

This trailer is often used and towed behind the camera car. It allows for steady and tight framing for the camera operator. Here, Erik adjusts his booster seat.

Tom Riley who replaced Larry Wilcox can be seen here with Eric Estrada. The show was “DIVA” heavy in this season. Larry had seen enough of this group and moved on from the ego’s in the shows last years.

This picture I took at Vet’s Park is of Erik pulling up towards the camera lens.This park is adjacent to MGM and is in several episodes of this T.V series.The paneled station wagon belongs to the studio and is a dandy ride to and from set.

The back of a “pick up” modified for camera work.

Chances are- you saw these cars crash.

Another pile of road rage victims…

This was a commercial picture for all my teenage friends…Don’t Drink and Drive. Buddy Pat volunteered to be the beer toting crash dummy. I can always count on Pat to deliver on whatever role he’s assigned. He lived to drink again.

My dog- surveying the situation-she did her own stunts. Tashka was her name, she knew how to trespass the backlot and ended up sometimes showing up on her own-looking for me. She knew the backlot as well as…Lassie.

MGM Lot 2, The Chips car crash boneyard. This was a constant work in progress, after a car was deemed worthless, it was sent away on a salvage trucks to be recycled. Later in the week, we would receive an entirely new batch. It was the routine in this section of New York Street.

These tankers ended up on the backlot.

This car carrier was a regular fixture on this series, carrying nice picture cars to location, then returning at the end a long day with rolled over, damaged and soon to be scrapped 70’s automobiles. In the picture most left, the carrier is acting in front of the camera. Normally, it’s how these cars arrive on set to be destroyed. This was a staple for transportation on this series.

So many classic cars ended their legacy in one final, grand- smash-up.

Notice how this truck gets launched, it needs the stunt driver to precisely hit a ramp built backside on another car.

LocationSepulveda and Greenlawn- Culver City, Four decades later.

C.H.P- Officer Andrew happened to be passing by as I visited this corner. “A Salute to Our Motorcycle Officers” and there fine work done in a very dangerous occupation. He watched the series in reruns. A reminder of how time flies by – not a lot of age 60 plus CHP officers on the beat.

My corner, Huron and Culver...”Silent Partner” episode… 1982

Same location… 2023

The last mission these vehicles from the T.V series “Emergency” was in a “CHiP’s” episode titled “Hot Wheels”

MGM had their own Fire Department that provided “safe haven” in explosive environments.

Dialogue…When these officers talk as they ride, complications need to be overcome to capture the conversation.The bikes are being towed, the stars don’t have do anything but talk…

Manis starred in “Every Which Way But Loose” before capturing hearts on this episode of “CHiP’s.”

This prop was featured in an episode on P.C.H. The boulder pictured is made fiberglass and wood and you can stand up inside its hollow core. It was driven out to Malibu and precariously positioned above the highway. It was like a guest star.

Ready to be relocated on P.C.H-the traveling rock.

Location…A sunny day in Malibu.

Saturday Night Fever” success found it’s way into every show in Hollywood. Every T.V show had some pulsating, grinding, Donna Summer rhythmic beat reminding you we’re in the wonderful decade of the 70’s.

CHP recruiting skyrocketed with this series, and you can see why!

A reminder…always designate a driver when drinking is involved, just ask Tom, his career on this show was terminated following his C.H.P arrest.

23 year old Tom Reilly. He would later be arrested by CHP Motorcycle officers after a brief chase for D.U.I…He was removed from series after his short stint as “Hot Dog”

Dating… “Joe Namath” while on series.

Enter- Bruce Penhall…

Enter- Bruce Jenner...Look at that guy, he’s more robust than Wilcox, who is a Marine.Yep, this Gold Medal winner is …”All Man”

As time goes forward, “people change”…

Girls Just Want to Have Fun” …down the street from MGM was this location affectionately called Chippendale’s. Chips rented this location for “Club Nights” The line up to get inside this club stopped traffic on Overland. A “Secret Garden” just a stones throw from the backlot, often visited by show biz patrons.

Our Star, hamming it up from his hospital bed after falling off his bike. “Ponch” fractured several ribs and broke both wrists after being thrown from his 600 lbs. motorbike.

Plastic Lunch Boxes replaced the steel cans that are most “trusted and needed” by students. This box could melt in an Emergency. I’m surprised they’re so cheaply designed. They at least need a “roll bar” under the hood. I’d rather have a dented Hub-Cap or a knob off a stick shift.

Saturday Nights at 8;00 P.M, following- “Emergency” on a T.V near you.

MGM Television Series-1977/1983– “Strap on your helmets,…let’s go for a ride!

Culver City’s landscape will forever be captured on film in this vehicular romp starring two motorcycle cops named-Jon Baker and Frank Poncherello. Larry Wilcox was cast first for a salary of 25 thousand dollars per episode. MGM chose a pin up model to ride alongside him named Erik Estrada.

A Diva” if there ever was one, His social life was served on a silver platter as he jumped in and out of relationships like a “speeder.on the 405 Freeway.” In 1981, he slowed his role and settled in with Beverly Sassoon, the ex-wife of Vidal Sassoon. Money, nor hair products, were a problem for this couple. Hollywood was surprised to hear these two were romantically involved since Ms. Sassoon is know for a conservativeness and class, something Erik was never famous for.

She would appear in an episode towards the end of the series and be-killed, by a drunk driver. A powerful episode denouncing drinking and driving. But in the beginning of the series, heavy friction existed between Larry Wilcox, a former Marine, and the Latin lover next to him. It was apparent Erik was hired for his looks, since he couldn’t even ride a Kawasaki. After an intense six week course on proper handling techniques, the studio finally felt safe allowing their star behind the handlebars.

This show filmed everywhere including my street-“3 times.” In the episode “Silent Partner” a spectacular crash took place on my residential street corner. In another episode, they rented out our friend “Tracy’s ” house, and a big chase started by breaking through a fence in her driveway. Our neighborhood could watch itself on television Saturday nights, and it seemed if everyone in this city had Erik Estrada encounters. One thing you would not see- is Larry and Erik fraternizing, that’s because of an extreme dislike between these two stars. In fact, I know no other lead pairing in a successful series with so much discontent.

It’s like Batman hating Robin, or The Green Hornet disliking KATO. Or even, heaven forbid, Andy despising Barney. It doesn’t happen, but it did on this set.

My dad had a second house on our street and we rented it to MGM employees. “Debbie“, was a Teamster on CHiPs, everyday MGM transportation ended up parked in front of my house.” Like Basecamp” cars coming and going with MGM logo’s proudly displayed. “Mike” her husband, worked at the MGM Film Labs as a “color timer.” I would work alongside him in that lab lab in this T.V Series final season. My job was a “reel router” and our department was the last MGM department to close down. “Lorimar” was taking over…I digress- but this was part of my development in future studio endeavors. I was becoming an adult.

MGM matched up an unlikely pair, one for looks, one for realism, then sprinkled in some fabulous car crashes thanks to Paul Knuckles. A U.S Navy veteran and motorcycle enthusiast, he is in the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2015, I’ll never forget him.

Each evening along Culver Blvd, a carnival of transportation vehicles would convoy back to MGM after a very long day-crashing stuff! When this caravan passed by-it gave me chills. I so wanted to go on location with them. It’s all I dreamed about. I’d head over to the backlot to examine the remains of crashed cars that were in good condition before loading into the car carrier for their roles. Every crash car was modified with roll bars inside and minimum amounts of gas in the engines to help prevent unwanted fire in these spectacular crashes.

Feature quality stunt work not usually found on a TV Series, this show was my addiction. Seeing the car bone yard grow larger and larger per episode. Fork lifts would off-load the destroyed vehicles on the backlot. Each episode ended its day in this way, with transportation putting away one mess-while preparing a new group of picture vehicles for destruction on some deserted freeway or local intersection. Something to look for in Paul’s old school effects- is ramps.

The stunts on this show are real deal, when you see a car fly through the air, usually in slo-motion, majestically, checkout the back of the car directly in front of the launched vehicle. You may notice ramps hidden on the backside of the car needed to help launch the airborne vehicle. This show had a magical blend, terrific stunts, decent plots, and dysfunctional chemistry with a wide cast of CHP officers.

CHP recruiting went through the roof when this series became popular. I have been on this set so often you would think I worked on it. I stocked it, I wanted to be in it, and I can be seen in the background in a scene at Vet’s Park. I also saw the friction between our stars. It was no secret on set these guys dislike each other but 25 k an episode for six days work was a healthy reason to tolerate one another.

Eventually Larry Wilcox had enough of our “Diva” and divorced this series. He was replaced by actor Thomas Reilly in the role as Officer Bobby “Hot Dog” Nelson. In what would have been a great episode, our star was arrested a year into his new role. Real CHP in Downtown L.A picked up Mr. Reilly after a short pursuit and virtually ended his career before it could take off. Real CHP takes out fake CHP. Two very inflated egos were the normal on this set in 1982. The chemistry was glittery, almost slimy, and each star thought they were God’s Gift to Television. Tom was lucky since he was cast into an already hit series. Larry Wilcox was the meat and potatoes to the meal.

In someways this pairing defined the decade of the 70’s. Themes involving dancing and roller disco became episodes. Saturday Night Fever was the biggest box office hit going and disco was king. Ponch would film some dance sequences just a short walk from the studio’s west gate at an establishment named Chippendale’s. The line up to get inside was like a meat market cattle call. The morning after in the parking lot was disgusting blend empty alcohol bottles, cigarette butts with lipstick no-less, dope baggies and cash were just some of the things you would find after a nights of entertainment.

This location fits what CHIP’s was becoming…a tease of slimy skin, gyrating, and amorous crowds of women unlike I’ve ever witnessed. Dressed ready for anything.

After “Hot Dogs”arrest, another star was brought in. Motorcycle champion Bruce Penhall was hired delivering instant credibility. Probably the most wholesome of all the actors still in the series. Bruce is the guy you would allow your daughter to date. In 1982, Bruce won his second World Championship in speedway racing at the L.A Coliseum. Let me tell you, that was a fantastic course. The best man won. Bruce brought class, dirt bike riding skills, and hard work to this set of twinkling glitter.

When Erik Estrada was in a contract dispute with MGM, the studio brought in another Bruce-last name- Jenner. A Gold Medal Winner in the 76′ Olympics, he seemed the perfect fit for this series. After all, he has the “all man” machoism that you would expect from CHP. I remember thinking he’s perfect for this role. Eventually “Ponch” would return to finish this last but very successful MGM T.V Series.

Written and lived by…Donnie Norden

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